Indian Mobile Phone Application Innovators Empower Citizens

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

With mobile phones becoming ubiquitous across the global South, the opportunity to make money – and possible fortunes – by providing ‘apps’ for these devices is now a reality.

Apps (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Application_software) – applications which allow users of new mobile phones to do everything from running a business to banking to navigating chaotic cities – have quickly become a very creative space and a dynamic market for innovators and entrepreneurs. Because they are pieces of software and are relatively inexpensive to create, requiring only time and hard work, an individual working out of their home can develop an app, introduce it to the online marketplace and see if it will succeed.

The only limit is the imagination.

They are also a great way to solve people’s problems and possibly make some money in the process. As economies and cities grow across the South, many everyday difficulties can be tackled with these apps.

Apps are revolutionary because they solve the problem of how to view websites on mobile phones and smartphones (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartphone). Apps are designed for a small screen and have simple functionality and design. They often can function without any constant connection to the Internet, updating themselves sporadically when the phone can connect with phone networks or the Internet. They are also either free or inexpensive, using micro-payments to make a profit. The essence of the micro-payment business model is to charge a small amount and turn this into a large amount by having large numbers of people download the app. It is a successful business formula that has made many vast fortunes throughout the age of the mass consumer market, which began in the late 19th century.

Bart Decrem, co-founder of Tapulous, a maker of apps for the iPhone (http://tapulous.com), told The Economist: “Apps are nuggets of magic.”

Apps are sold in online stores run by companies like Apple (http://itunes.apple.com/us/genre/ios/id36?mt=8), Google, Sweden’s GetJar (http://www.getjar.com), and South Korea’s SK Telecom. Apple’s store has over 425,000 apps and Google’s Android Market has more than 250,000. Other stores include Mobihand, PocketGear, Mobango, Handango, Blackberry App World and Handster (http://www.handster.com).

Research firm Gartner (http://www.gartner.com/technology/home.jsp) estimated that 18 billion apps have been downloaded since Apple opened its first app store in 2008. Remarkably, it forecasts this number could rise to 49 billion by 2013. The most popular topics include games, weather forecasts, social networks, maps, music and news.

The dynamic documented so far for apps seems to follow the way music charts work. A few apps, out of the many on offer, become big sellers and popular favourites, getting the most users. Partly this reflects the difficulty of quickly searching through all the apps available in the world to find the right one, a process that favours well-marketed apps.

The recent TechSparks 2011 App4India (http://www.facebook.com/techspark) contest showcased the creative thinking about apps now happening in India.

One Indian success story is the 1000Lookz (http://www.vdime.com/pro1.htm) app, developed by Vasan Sowriraj (http://www.vdime.com/about.htm), which helps women perform a virtual beauty makeover. A woman can check what shades work best for her skin tone by using her own photos uploaded to the app. The user adds features like foundation, blush, gloss, eye-shadow, eye-liner and lipstick. The app uses facial recognition and skin tone detection technology to assist the virtual makeover. It was developed by VDime Innovative Works headquarterd in Atlanta, Georgia, with its technology developed by its Indian division.

1000Lookz’ mission is to create “innovative products that bring cheer to consumers’ faces.”

Sowriraj got his experience from working as a key member of the team developing special image processing for the Indian Space and Research Organisation (http://www.isro.org).

The same team has also developed another service enabling users to transform standard emoticons – those cartoons used in electronic communications to convey emotions – into emoticons using your own face image. It is called Humecons (http://www.humecons.com), and its slogan is “Emote Yourself”.

The India TV Guide, based in Bangalore, India’s software hub (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Tech_Park,_Bangalore), is a mobile phone application developed by Jini Labs (http://www.jinilabs.com) offering programme listings for 150 television channels broadcast in India, and allows viewers to save reminders for favourite shows and build favourites lists.

Jini Labs also makes Jini Books (http://itunes.apple.com/in/app/jinibooks/id404988026?mt=8), a clever app to display books, magazines and journals that are hard to find in conventional shops. It is free and promises to have “indie book authors and publishers – including small size, mid-size independent publishers, university presses, e-book publishers, and self-published authors.”

A very useful app improving people’s lives is the Indian Railway Lite app. India’s railways are a critical part of the country’s economy, and the world’s largest railway system. The complexity of trying to work out the train schedule has been made easier with the app.

Founded by Srinath Reddy, the app’s chief technology officer at RSG Software Services (http://www.rsgss.com), the app enables users to discover train connections between stations, and find which trains pass through stations, while navigating the Indian Railways website. It is a good example of how an app can quickly become a big hit. It became the second most popular on the Apple India app store and is downloaded more than 1,000 times a day.

One of the advantages of the app is its ability to function without access to the Internet. It draws on its own database of information and offers a friendlier user interface than the Indian State Railways website.

“This feature has proved to be very popular as users can access train information even while they are travelling and are out of network range,” Reddy told Yourstory.in. “We update the app at regular intervals and the user has to download a new version of the app to get updated information. Trains are generally added once in a few months and the timetable does not change significantly, so the user can use the same version until the next one is released.”

The app’s creators initially found it difficult to get information and updates from Indian Railways.

“We took around four to five months to build the app,” Reddy said. “Significant effort went into compiling the train and station data as this was not easily available. Refining the UI (user interface) took quite some time as well.”

The company saw a market for the app because there were so many iPhone (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone) users in India. The app was downloaded 45,000 times between June and September, and other versions, including one for Google Android (www.android.com) are in the works to broaden access to people without an iPhone.

The company has its headquarters in Ranchi, India and has four development centers in India located in Delhi, Pune, Ranchi and Hyderabad. Currently, the company has approximately 250 employees with core competencies in Apple, Filemaker and Open Source technologies.

The Tuk Tuk 2 app is a clever and practical application for users of India’s ubiquitous motorized and bicycle rickshaws. They are an important part of the country’s transport infrastructure – but a journey in one can be a stressful experience for many reasons. This app seeks to lesson the stress.

Tuk Tuk 2 app (https://market.android.com/details?id=com.mindhelix.tuktuk2&hl=en) is designed to introduce fairness to the auto rickshaw marketplace. It empowers travellers to track where they are on a journey, check the fare and find the distance covered. It helps to reduce exploitation of travellers and makes sure they know where they are at all times: a powerful resource in crowded, busy and confusing cities.

It was developed by Mind Helix Technologies (http://www.mindhelix.com), founded in 2009 as a dedicated application development company with a mission to empower people with its apps. And that is really what apps are all about!

Resources

1) Mobile phone boot camp: Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles: Website: http://www.media.mit.edu/ventures/EPROM/entrepreneurship.html

2) Mobile Active: MobileActive.org connects people, organizations, and resources using mobile technology for social change. Website: http://mobileactive.org/

3) Teams of motorcyclists with mobile phones in Lagos, Nigeria take pictures of traffic gridlock and open road, send it to central control, who grade it “slow”, “moving” or “free” and in turn send the message to subscribers. Website: http://www.traffic.com.ng

4) Southern Innovator magazine: New global magazine’s first issue tackles the boom in mobile phone and information technologies across the global South. Website: www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Issue-1

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